America slow to cede Internet control

Author: Alex Pearlman
Date: October 15th, 2015

A clear Wi-Fi connection doesn’t just appear out of thin air. The Internet, like all types of man-made infrastructure, has regulations and dedicated human monitors. The ultimate authority, perhaps unknown to many of its global users, has been at the US Department of Commerce.

Now that setup is changing, leaving the future of global Internet governance in uncertain terrain and sparking an intense debate over who the overseers of the Internet should be and how they should operate. The argument is rife with competing national and corporate interests and could directly impact how the Internet grows for decades to come.

In August the Department of Commerce delayed, at least for another year, a long-standing White House plan to give up sole oversight of the group that oversees basic functionality of the Internet, the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a semiautonomous nonprofit.

ICANN, based in Los Angeles, has three main components, responsible for the domain name system (DNS), the Internet protocol (IP) numbers that identify computers connected to the Web and the system used to connect computers to one another.  But in June the House of Representatives passed a bill mandating congressional review of the proposed transfer of the US-controlled ICANN to a global body or international group, citing concerns about influence by authoritarian regimes.

Potential: Eventually, the hope is that ICANN will be run through a mandate from an international body made up of a mixture of corporations, civil society groups and representatives from the world’s governments, a model that has been dubbed multistakeholder. The new incarnation of ICANN will eventually decide who’s in charge and how to best manage a free and open Internet. But getting ICANN to that point is easier said than done.

Issue: Although many experts believe the US has done a good job guaranteeing Internet continuity, what’s next may not be easy. A draft proposal from ICANN’s internal transition committee has quickly become divisive, as concern over policies that seem to prioritize American corporate interests threaten negotiations for control of the Web. A tug of war over jurisdiction, governmental involvement and human rights law is brewing.

“The IANA proposal does not adequately address the issue of diversity or human rights within ICANN,” said Sukumar. “We see primarily American corporations and organizations, and they tend to aggressively dominate the debate.”  Many members of a major initiative led by Bildt, the Global Commission on Internet Governance, agree that the lack of diversity in ICANN is stark.

Further Criticism:  “It’s hard to believe how our institutions are so underdeveloped in this space,” said Eileen Donohoe, an Internet expert and a former US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council.

She compared the growth of the Internet to a rain forest, with multiple co-existing species that make up parts of the whole and contribute to the ecosystem. It’s blooming chaotically, growing far beyond what American borders can contain.


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